It was eighth grade. I was sitting alone in the corner outside the dean’s office.
In trouble. Again.
It’s not that I was a wild child. Far from it. I was ordinarily very well behaved—a shy, bespectacled girl who always had a book in her hand. In fact, that was the problem. The book in my hand wasn’t the right book. The Dean of Students—let’s call her Ms. Epiphany—sternly called me into her office. The furniture was new—stick-like and uncomfortable, just like I felt.
“Mr. Clark tells me,” said Ms. Epiphany, “that you’re not paying attention in math class.”
Of course I wasn’t paying attention. Actually, many kids weren’t paying attention—but they weren’t being called into the dean’s office.
“That’s right,” I answered.
Ms. Epiphany slowly squared some papers on her desk. She wanted a simple apology—a promise that I wouldn’t do it again. She chose another tack, one closer to the real issue.
“Mr. Clark also tells me that you’re reading in math class.”
“I like to read,” I answered.
Ms. Epiphany swooped. “But you’re not supposed to be reading in math class. Books, I mean, that aren’t the math book.”
I stared coolly. “I want to tell you something. I hate math. Hate it. Math is useless. No one will ever make me study math. Not you. Not anybody.”
Ms. Epiphany stared, considering her options. There are times when reason is useless, and she was smart enough to know that this was one of them. Finally, almost hesitantly, she ventured, “Could you at least not be reading other books in math class?”
That was why I was in Ms. Epiphany’s office. Mr. Clark had taken to pulling my book from my hands in an effort to get me to pay attention. But since I’d started bringing a bag of books with me to class, Mr. Clark’s efforts were like trying to bail out a sinking boat—as soon as he walked by and snatched away one book, I pulled out another. It had turned into a public battle of wills for my attention.
“Since I’m not going to pay attention,” I told Ms. Epiphany, “I might as well spend my time doing something worthwhile. So I’m going to read books I like.” The books I liked were novels, history books, and adventure stories; in other words, anything that provided new perspectives and interesting ways of looking at life—ways that had nothing to do with math or science.
That was that. I went back to class with my stack of literature. Mr. Clark never bothered me again. Of course, just as with many math and science courses before and after my talk with Ms. Epiphany, I flunked Mr. Clark’s class.
Today, some forty years later, Ms. Epiphany and Mr. Clark would be shocked to discover I’m now a happy professor of engineering, able to sling a differential equation and navigate the nuances of Bayes’ Theorem. The girl who had absolutely no interest or aptitude for math and science from kindergarten through high school aced a doctorate in those subjects as an adult.
How did I do it? Why did I do it?
I enlisted in the Army straight out of high school, because it was one of the few jobs I could get that would actually pay me to learn another language. I studied Russian and my love of adventure eventually led me to work as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers in the Bering Sea. By the time I left the Army at age twenty-six, I had gradually realized that although language and culture are important, math and science—counter to my early intuitions—are important in life, too. In fact, some of the most interesting professions required a solid grounding in math and science. I’d always sought new perspectives and adventures. So why not try one of the most challenging adventures of all—seeing if I could master the very subjects I’d always felt I couldn’t learn?
I decided to turn my attention to studying math and science. I was older now, with a worldly perspective that wouldn’t allow me to fall back on my old excuses of lack of interest or aptitude. I had to find a way to power through. I ultimately stumbled on three simple yet powerful approaches—solidly based, as it turned out, on modern cognitive neuroscience—that can help anyone master tough subjects.
1. Learn when to stop.
When I first began to study math and science seriously, I made the mistake of forcing myself to sit and work on a problem until I figured it out. Naturally, I often felt deeply frustrated and on the edge of quitting. I slowly began to realize that although persistence is important in learning, misplaced persistence can actually stop learning from taking place. I found that it was best to work only up to the point where I wasn’t making any headway and frustration was kicking in. When that happened, I set the problem aside and either worked on something different or took a walk.
That turned out to be a good instinct. Now, science has shown that the brain has two fundamental modes of learning—focused and diffuse. One is an active state of concentration, and the second involves a more relaxed state of mind. You are generally in either one state or the other—in fact, being in one mode appears to block your access to the other mode!
When you are trying to learn new ideas and concepts, you need the wide-ranging perspectives of the diffuse mode. So the best thing you can do when learning something new is to first focus on the problem, and then stop for a while and do something else. This permits the largely unconscious diffuse mode to kick in, which in turn allows your brain to examine the problem in a fresh way. When you later return with your focused attention, you’ll be surprised at how often the solution jumps quickly to mind.
2. Slow down, back up, repeat.
I was always intimidated by students who quickly grasped complex ideas in math and science while I slogged along, struggling with even simple concepts. I felt like a hiker trudging at the edge of the trail while watching mountain bikers zoom past to the distant finish line. But with my determination to retool my brain and learn math and science, I looked at how I could best deal with my need for more time to grasp the concepts. I lightened up and slowed down, taking fewer classes than the other students so that I could concentrate on what I was learning.
By sidestepping the race to the finish line, I had the time to practice and repeat. Consequently, I learned more deeply—like the hiker who smells the pine forest and spots the rabbit trails as the bicycles obliviously speed by. By slowing down initially, I was later able to speed up, because I had a solid understanding of the fundamentals. I will never be a person who catches on quickly in math and science. But that’s okay—surprisingly often, I see things that speedy thinkers miss.
3. Don’t procrastinate.
One of the easiest mistakes you can make in learning something difficult is to procrastinate. As we have found out through research, learning something new is the mental equivalent of training in a sport—you are building neural structures just as athletes are building muscular structures. Starting too late forces you to try to build neural networks in a hurry. Therefore, you need to go against your instinct to avoid the difficult subject you’re tackling, and instead start earlier than you ordinarily would. This gives your brain the time it needs to go back and forth between the focused and diffuse learning modes and build the neural structures it needs to process the new information.
I did it. I rewired myself to master subjects that I once found impossibly challenging. And if I can rewire the kid in the dean’s office to become a professor of engineering—you can do it, too.
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Hi, Barbara. I am Farzana from Bangladesh. I am a super duper slow learner. I am 24 years old and I want to be a graphics designer. From my childhood I have always been a slow learner and like you have always admired those people who are genius. I am still struggling with my learning problem. All this time I have always tried to find somebody who could help me . I though that I am stupid. And I was convinced that may be there is no solution until I found you and your course in coursera.org. I gave up. I thought as I am 24 now, may be the time has gone. But after reading your article it gave me new hope. May be I can start over again. But here is a problem. You are giving solution for learning math. But I want to be a designer. Could you help me with this? Could you tell me how to increase my creativity and how to cope with this crowed of new software? I want to be a designer but I am not that good at drawing. I want to control my hand. I want it to do what i want to draw. But it seems that I think of one thing and it creates something else! How can i solve this weird problem? and how can I be more innovative? I will really really be grateful if you could give me some kind of insight. I really need your help. Looking forward to your reply. Farzana
Hello Farzana, I am currently studying the art of drawing on my own and also taking Barbara’s course. Even if the course mentions math and science a lot, the principles can be applied to learning all sorts of other subjects. It won’t teach you how to draw, but it will teach you how to absorb a drawing class better. A common misconception about drawing (or arts in general) is that it is something completely based on natural talent. Well, it isn’t. Just like other subjects, it takes a huge ammount of practice and studying. The ability to draw is also in your brain, it’s not only hand cordination, and that’s why Learning How to Learn can also help you with drawing. The first thing you have to prepare yourself to is to have patience and persistance and to not have unrealistic spectations (focus on what you are improving in, don’t expect to be able to do what artists with years and years of experience do in your first weeks). It will be hard work, but it’s rewarding! There are several good courses on the internet, like ctrlpaint.com (free) or drawing-tutorials-online.com (has a monthly fee). Hope it was helpful, have a good time learning!
Farzana- If you read her book ‘A Mind for Numbers’ or take her ‘Learning How to Learn’ course on coursera: https://class.coursera.org/learning-002, it will show some techniques to help with learning. Mostly: Focus on what you are learning, take breaks between focusing, and then practice over and over. Practice drawing a certain technique over and over for 25-40 minutes. Take a 10-15 minute break. Repeat. Once you have it down, try a new technique that is more difficult. Also, find a designer and ask if you could intern or shadow them a few times. Ask for specific help (I’m having trouble with this program, or this technique)
Thanks a lot Tek.
Dont give up I am 64 and am doing my fifth year in psychology program it has been 15 years to get to this far because of in beginning i think i am stupid i did not finish high school and am studying with people who have degrees in university . one thing i have found is that each profession have their own language and it has become easier when i listed to them talk and i have found i am smart enough to ask a question.good luck
I think the replies to Farzana are better than I could have written myself! 🙂
Hi, Dr. Oakley,
I find this article and your course fascinating. I have always been a good student, at least through high school. However, what many people don’t know is that I was good because I spent an inordinate amount of time in mastering my subjects. I realize now that the comment my 3rd grade teacher made to my mom accurately summed me up. She said, Margie is a great student, but she is as slow as molasses. That made me feel I had to work twice as hard as anyone else. After I got older it became more difficult for me to put that kind of time into mastery and I started to feel that I was losing my edge. I signed up for a tough (for me) course on coursera and was really struggling to do well. Then I came across the Learning How to Learn course. After applying the concepts from the first 2 weeks, I see that I’m getting 100% accuracy after just the first attempt at the tough Coursera course I mentioned. This is huge for me. Now I can learn all those other courses that I’ve been wanted to get good at. Learning How to Learn is life changing.
I just wanted to say … way to go! I’m sure they’re proud of you.. and I’m proud of you… love your course over at Coursera.. I’m really enjoying it! Love the article… I, too, can relate.
Thank you so much, Elle!
I am a post graduate student in Physics at a state university who has just quit her studies. I was convinced, after enrolling for classes on Coursera, especially Learning How To Learn, I decided to discontinue formal education, because the methods they use to teach students are very old fashioned, redundant and stereotypical. The lectures in the universities are no match for the courses we take online- which are so engaging and realistic. Although I am an average learner, science and math have always been my favorite subjects. But, the compulsion to attend the classes, if you want to take the semester exams, no matter how boring and dull the lectures are, made me feel stressed and frustrated all the time. Since I needed to sustain my interest in learning science, I took the hard but bold decision of quitting formal education, although it’s a big social stigma. Barbara’s story is an inspiration for every single person who aspires to learn science at any age. But I am just confused if my decision would alter my course and if l will ever be back on track and become a professional physicist. Or All I ever will be in my life is a physics hobbyist??
It’s important to know that there are no right or wrong answers here–every decision you make will lead to some open and some closed doors.
One unfortunate phenomenon that has arisen is an undue emphasis on conventional college degrees as social signifiers of success. But many highly successful people have succeeded precisely because they found nonconventional paths. Here is some excellent advice from Mike Rowe in his letter to Stephen Adams: https://www.facebook.com/TheRealMikeRowe/photos/a.151342491542569.29994.116999698310182/865520353458109
Dear Dr. Oakley,
I just wanted to thank you for helping me regain my confidence not only in math and science but in many other areas of my life! I got to thinking that a sequel to A Mind for Numbers could be applying those techniques to the workplace as I feel sometimes that we don’t appreciate or gleen results from people in the best way. For instance, in meetings, I tend to take in the discussions and ideas and then need to ponder for later responding. This goes against the hurry up feeling in the workplace. Our technology staff quickly go over things once thinking we all understand immediately. If only we could have brown bag lunches on chunking and the parts of the brain! I feel that your concepts could change economics. Thanks again!
You are only 24 and I am closer to 60 than 59. There is no end to learning and there is absolutely no reason to give up hope and be despondent . Keep trying (in a diffused mode) and your hands will become a slave of your mind. I am involved in a bit of teaching at a University level (and also involved in teaching administration). I have taken up this course so that I can improve on my own learning methods – and then teach my colleagues and students how to teach and learn better, quickly and smartly.
This is an amazing course. Dr. Barbara and her friends are (teaching) exposing us to new ideas in an amazing way – some thing that I have never been exposed to. Hats off to them. (I don’t take off my had very often – I have a huge bald!!!!)
I hope Barbara is reading this. I am very curious to know more about the the involvement of conscience and sub-conscience mind in the learning process.
As human beings, we are constantly absorbing information and evolving. That’s the beauty of learning. It’s never too late to change our habits and rewire our way of thinking.
Hi, after reading this awesome paragraph I am too delighted to share my experience here with friends.
Mathematics is vital in many areas, including natural research, engineering, medicine, financing and the
sociable sciences. Applied mathematics has led to new mathematical disciplines entirely,
such as information and game theory. Mathematicians also take part
in pure mathematics, or mathematics because of its own sake, with no any application at heart.
There is absolutely no clear range separating applied and real mathematics,
and practical applications for what started out as pure mathematics are learned often.